Picture this: you’ve only got a weekend to get away, or just enough money and time to fit Paris onto the end of a busy itinerary. Paris has been on your bucket list for years and finally you get to see it. You’re freaking out, guidebooks strewn haphazardly in front of you. How on earth are you going to see everything in so little time?
Don’t worry, reader, I’ve got your back.
The City of Love is packed to bursting with things to see and culture to experience, but sometimes time is working against us.
However there are some essential sites that I feel every visitor, old or new, to Paris needs to see. This guide will help you get the most out of your visit in the short time you have.
Sound good? Read on then!
Breakfast: Get up early, there’s no time to waste sunshine! Don’t bother eating breakfast at your hotel, there’s plenty of gorgeous little cafe’s lining the Parisian streets where you can grab some crepes, and a latte, and sit and enjoy the atmosphere. After that, hop on the Metro and make your way to:
Stop 1: Notre Dame de Paris (Notre-Dame Cathedral)
If you know anything about Paris you’ll probably have heard of Notre Dame. Completed in 1345 AD Notre Dame was one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses in it’s design, and remains one of the finest examples of French Gothic Architecture.
Nestled on an island in the middle of the Seine, Notre-Dame is full to the brim with gargoyles, stunning stained glass windows and gold-dripping religious iconography. Take a marvel at the famous Rose stained-glass windows, or just simply stare in awe out how beautiful Notre-Dame is.
(Hunchbacks not included)
If you’re feeling adventurous (and fit) you can even climb to the top of the Cathedral and become face-to-face with some of the famous 13-tonne bells of Notre-Dame, as well as the once vividly painted gargoyles. Oh! Don’t forget to take in the breath-taking view of the city.
Make sure you get in early because it gets packed inside as the day wears on, and the entry line can stretch for miles. Afterwards, grab a baguette from one of the cafes beside the Cathedral for a quick lunch and head around the back to find a beautiful French garden, complete with quaint wooden benches and a flowing fountain. We were lucky enough to have an elderly French man jamming out on an accordion in the middle of the garden. Can you get any more French?
Stop 2: Shakespeare & Company Bookshop
Book and History lovers, this one is for you! Shakespeare & Co is the name of two independent bookstore’s on Paris’ left bank, just a hop skip and a jump across from Notre-Dame.
The first was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, and was a popular gathering place for writers such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, and Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway! Unfortunately, this original location was closed in the 1940’s during the German Occupation of Paris and never re-opened.
The second store, the one we see today, was opened in 1951 by George Whitman. Originally named Le Mistral, it was renamed to Shakespeare & Company in 1964 as a tribute to Sylvia Beach’s bookstore. Like it’s predecessor, this store became the focal point of literary culture in bohemian Paris, and was the meeting place of many Beat Generation writers, including Allen Ginsbery, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs.
Over the years, Shakespeare & Co has had an interesting past. Past customers have included Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Richard Wright. From 1978-1981, a group of American and Canadian expats ran a literary journal, called Paris Voice, out of the upstairs library.
Now the store is both a regular bookstore, a second-hand bookstore, and a reading library, specializing in English-language literature.
If, like me, you’re a fan of tiny wooden bookstores with books spilling out of their shelves, creaky wooden staircases, and shabby chic Parisian lounges, do yourself a favour and stop in at Shakespeare & Co. You never know what you’re going to find in this shop!
Stop 3: Luxembourg Gardens (Jardin du Luxembourg)
Phew! You’re probably feeling a bit tired after all that exploring (and sampling of Parisian cuisine). Now it’s time for the last stop of the day!
A medium length walk, or a short Metro trip, from Shakespeare & Co will take you to the perfect retreat that is Luxembourg Gardens.
Luxembourg Garden was created in 1612 by Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, for a new residence she created: the Luxembourg Palace. Today, the garden is owned by the French Senate, which meets in the palace.
The garden, which stretches over 23 hectares of land, is famous for its manicured lawns, tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, the model sail boats on its circular basin, and for the picturesque Medici Fountain, built in 1620, as a nympheum: an artificial grotto and fountain.
(Medici Fountain, Credit: Francis Bourgouin)
Like anything in Paris the gardens have a long and interesting story, from flourishing paradise, to neglect, and then to being restored by Jean Chalgrin (the architect behind the Arc de Triomphe) after the French Revolution.
Featuring statues of famous French Queens, an orchard, the theatre des marionette (puppet theater), vintage carousel, and gazebo with free music and performances, the Luxembourg Gardens are a slice of tranquility in the hustle and bustle of thriving Paris.
Bring a blanket and some snacks and have a picnic as you watch children sail their boats in the pool; or go for a wander and marvel at the nearly 100 hundred statues dotted around the gardens. Whatever you do, a truly perfect French experience is waiting!
Breakfast: Rinse and repeat, get up early and make sure you have some comfy clothes and shoes on, you’re going to be doing a lot of standing today! Grab some breakfast on the way as you make your way nice and early too:
Stop 1: The Louvre
I know, I know, is there anything in Paris more famous than The Louvre? It’s a tourist hot spot, with lines stretching for miles if you don’t plan your trip. But it’s popular for a reason! The Louvre really is a place you have to visit on your trip, it’s that good!
Of course the place is huge, and can take a whole day to view, so you probably won’t get to see everything. But there are some tips and tricks to make sure your visit is as exciting and hassle-free as possible:
– Buy a pre-paid ticket. Not only do you get to skip massive queue lines (and I’m not lying, they are some looong lines) but you can also get a discount if you book far in advance. It’s a win-win situation! Trust me, just do it.
– Get there early. I know I say this a lot but in this case it’s really important. We arrived at around 7am, just before the gallery opened, and there was already a small line, nothing that was too ridiculous but it was there. Of course the non-prepaid ticket line was way worse (seriously, get a pre-paid ticket!). Getting there early also means that you are one of the first people into the place, and into the galleries, which means there is room to breathe and explore before the throngs of tour groups bear down upon you. It’s nice to be able to get up close and personal with Mona Lisa before there’s a swarm of 100+ people blocking your way.
– Plan which departments you want to see. Like I said before, the Louvre is a big place, which has been kindly split into eight departments with different central themes: Egyptian antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities (can you guess which section I liked?); Islamic art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; and Prints and Drawings. The best plan is to pick two departments you really want to see, as this will take up half the day to start with, and then if you have any time left over go for a wander through the other wings. It’s physically impossible to see all of the Louvre in one go, so take your time, relax and get the best out of what you can see.
– Don’t just go for the famous pieces. Sure, it’s tempting to head straight for the Venus de Milo or Lacroix’s Liberty Leading the People; after all they’re the pieces you’ve been hearing about since you were a kid. But the Louvre has countless other priceless, lesser known pieces of work that are just as deserving of your attention. Wander off the beaten path, away from the crowds, and discover something that will take your breath away. You never know when you’re going to walk into a tucked-away room and discover it’s full of gorgeous illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century (also a true story). Ah, only at the Louvre!
– Don’t forget to look up! The Louvre used to be a palace, so you can probably guess that the architecture itself is impressive. The ceilings are more so. Seriously, just look up at the roof to get an eyeful of art most visitors miss.
Break: Tuileries Garden
Lunch time! Only a short walk, under the Arc de triomphe du Carousel, from the Louvre is the Tuileries Garden (Jardin des Tuileries) which stretches all the way to the Place de Concorde. After the Louvre you’re probably ready for a sit and a relax, and what better place to do it than the historic place of Parisians to celebrate, meet, promenade and relax. Grab a bite to eat, kick up your heels, and enjoy the sunshine before your next stop.
Stop 2: Musee d’Orsay
Housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station, the Musee d’Orsay boasts the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world. Did I mention you’d be doing a lot of standing today?
The museum holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography (photography!). Famous painters represented in the collection including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and van Gogh.
(Credit: Daniel Vorndran)
Notable piece include: Degas’ L’Absinthe; Self-portrait by van Gogh; and Gauguin’s Tahitian Women on the Beach, among countless others. Sculptures stud the ground floor, and the works of a multitude of painters are sitting above former train platforms.
The idea behind the museum was to bridge the gap in time between the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Centre.
Not only is the Musee d’Orsay’s collection impressive, but the building itself is too. Like I mentioned above, it is housed in a former train station with decorative roof reliefs and a famous clock designed by Victor Laloux.
(Credit: Benh Lieu Song)
By 1939 the station’s short platform had become unsuitable for the longer trains in use at the time, and become subsequently used for suburban services and a mailing centre during World War II. It was also used a a set for several films, including Kafka’s The Trial adapted by Orson Welles.
Leave it to the French to turn a train station into a popular and impressive art gallery!
Stop 3: Up to you!
You’ve seen art and artifacts from throughout the ages, eaten traditional baguettes and crepes, relaxed in quintessential French gardens, soaked up the atmosphere and hung out where 20th century literary geniuses used to hang out The rest of your time in Paris is up to you! Take a stroll along the Champs-Elysees and climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, or catch a lift up to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower to get a spectacular view of the city. Maybe duck into a bustling restaurant and delight your taste buds once again, or take a sunset stroll along the Seine.
If you’re looking for a night time excursion the Moulin Rouge can’t be missed, or if you have a little more than 24 hours book a trip to the gold-drenched Palace of Versailles and see where Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI lived; and see the famous, expansive gardens that still remain.
Paris is a city thriving with life, history, and culture, and sometimes just taking the time to slow down and observe can be rewarding in itself. Relax and soak in the French atmosphere and you’ll find yourself wishing to be back even before you’ve left!
Was this article helpful? What are your favourite things to do and see in Paris? Want to know more about the City of Love? Let me know in the comments down below and I’ll be sure to get back to you!
All words and photos, unless otherwise noted, © Shannon Coward